There were four of them. There were always four, the chosen quartet who in truth chose themselves by answering the echo. Joining their voices to the songs so old even the music-teachers didn’t know their age. Four, bound by blood and trust and, at the beginning and middle and end of it all, by the songs. The harmonies incomplete with any one of them missing. The songs appeased the sky into the essential choreography, first-sun and second-sun to warm them and nourish their crops, first-moon and second-moon to chill them in their proper turn.
They’d loved her. The other three listened to the truth of the song living inside Inez and joined their own to it, letting her be part of a whole. Whole.
They’d become more whole than she ever knew she could be, but now she felt herself battered to bits by the voices of the other three. The three she killed.
The sky had been wrong for too many days, though Inez could no longer keep any sort of proper time. Second-sun was no more than a faint gleam to the south when it should have roared overhead the day before. Or was it two days, or twenty? She couldn’t tell anymore. Nights fell but out of sync, the moons displaced. It was strange enough for first-moon and second-moon to share the sky more than a few times per year and now this, the two almost every night positioned at no angle found in any of the records. It was a conjunction that set people to muttering and narrowing their eyes.
The Tally of Days had been wrenched from its orderly tending. It sat near the nexus of the market, surrounded by an invisible diameter no one but the Tallyers dared cross. Were you there early enough in the day, the sort of days that used to come and go as expected, you could see the Tallyers at their work, hunched over the expanse of the Tally with their slim, richly pigmented pencils and brushes. Their backs bent and their fingers kept nimble only through careful exercises, they practised with more fervour than the devout prayed. They worshipped the art that infused them with life, as the suns did the crops. They gave up the privilege of speech for the work, their entire world narrowed in as purposefully as a high lingering note that must be kept soft. They marked the days alongside the images, cataloguing how much of the year had passed.
The year that should have been four hundred iterations of the heavens, before—
Before you ruined it all. Klea’s voice had no expression, though Inez couldn’t have mistaken the sound if her life depended on it.
Why won’t you let us out? Jiene was confused. Jiene, who knew the litany and the music and the history better than the rest of them combined, who never wavered in who she trusted. She’d trusted Inez.
It’s your fault. Nan. Look what’s happening. We’re not protecting them. Her tone was more pointed in death, every word a jab in Inez’s mind, weakening her skull until one day she would collapse.
We would be singing if not for your weakness. Klea, threatening to send Inez tumbling down a chasm so dark, so endless, with the voices—
“Inez?” A voice, a real voice, broke through. She blinked and Raq pieced into view, holding a steaming cup of coffee tighter than necessary, stiff fingers belying her smile. “Please come back to me.”
Inez wondered if this would be the time Raq asked about the Ascent. How much longer would she hold out? Raq had known her longer than anyone else alive, since the days before she’d known what it was to have a calling, a calling that drew you so far away nothing was familiar. Until suddenly, there was something so bright and fixed and perfect because you’d found others who felt the same. Who knew what it was to see the sky and feel a song in yourself, music spiralling up from a connection to a force you didn’t understand but which gave you life more than air or water or someone else’s love.
Raq was still staring at her, eyes searching for something, someone, Inez didn’t think was there anymore. She hadn’t told Raq or anyone about who really was inside her mind. She’d thought of it, but that only made the voices rise up in a tincture of shame and fear that closed her throat.
Raq came for her when she learned of the failed Ascent. Inez didn’t want to think about what that meant or how far the news had travelled. Raq refused to tell her where she’d been when she heard. Inez couldn’t remember how long she’d been there. Time was difficult. There was no more routine of songs and suns and moons to mark the flow of the world with.
Inez opened her mouth, longing to still the worry in her friend’s eyes, but realized she didn’t have anything to say.
Our words are not yours, Klea said, the syllables echoing through Inez’s mind like the screams of the hopeless too isolated to be heard. Do not use them as you have used us.
Raq brought her news of home, though she knew Inez wasn’t listening to it. But Raq continued speaking, giving Inez something to focus on besides the other three women trapped in her mind, like a rope held out to a drowning soul by someone who didn’t realize the undertow was stronger than a tool of human construction could ever be.
How many, from how far away, knew of Inez’s failure?
The Ascent was ritual, undertaken once a year by the quartet. Continued survival meant they had faced their deepest fears and won, marking them worthy of protecting the faithful. Legends told of those who failed, the shame, the destruction, but such stories were always quickly hushed away.
Until Inez brought them screaming to life.
The quartet anchored the universe’s blessings, the heavenly bodies that cast the crucial lights and shadows. One singer for each sun and one for each moon. Every alignment was part of the great pattern the music-teachers kept safe in their books.
The leader of the songs differed based on what celestial movement was required on each day, as the rest harmonized and wove antiphony alongside them. So they coaxed the sky to shelter and protect them, those massive, terrifying, beautiful spheres. And once every year they ascended the hill, far enough away from the town that most people could happily forget it was there the rest of the year. Even should they remember, none but the quartet would dare follow the path upwards.
Upon reaching the top the quartet would lance their music directly into the sky so it could spill out over the land like a wave. The Ascent was a reminder of the order of things, of the power the quartet held and used for the good of everyone.
None of the songs had been sung properly since Inez’s failed Ascent.
In the aftermath, she’d tried becoming one of the music-teachers. Tried passing on the knowledge she held under her skin, but it refused to leave her. Every time she tried to share a song the others rose up in her mind, in her memory, and her skin felt about to strangle her, wrap around her skeleton like a shroud, making her a monument to the precious lives her fears had wrenched from the world. Had it been a hundred days, or a single day too cruel to end? The world no longer granted her the privilege of comprehension.
A new quartet was chosen, from the ones who were drawn by the threads of the song woven through all the world, always searching for their homes. Inez heard them singing, even through the walls of the house Raq forced her to leave on rare occasions, and the song was not right. The harmonies didn’t match up, their tones the slightest fraction of a step from aligning, like a shelf that looked level until you balanced something on it. They performed the melodies according to the calendar, that ancient collection of parchment guarded by the music-teachers, though Inez’s heresy had rendered it incorrect. The calendar was a sacred thing, circles and crescents and angles only the few could interpret, a language not only of ink but of blood and bone and heart-resonance. Even if a stranger should see it, blasphemy of blasphemies, the knowledge would be naught but an image in their mind, a useless tool in an untrained throat.
Inez listened, through her pain, but the songs did not right themselves.
Seen from the ground the hill was placid, a clear winding path up to a summit which wasn’t even so high as to shear the clouds on gloomy days.
Yet Inez knew, from all the years before, the real challenge began at the top. Every year the Ascent brought the facing of their fears, things buried so deep they’d not even spoken of the need to refrain from inquiring into each other’s torments. The peak writ the dark parts of their souls large, beyond belief but infused with such marrow-deep veracity you couldn’t disbelieve them.
That last Ascent had been the worst of all, from the beginning. Inez remembered Jiene screaming, the strong woman’s boom of a voice threatening to rend the world in her pain. Incomprehensible pleas drenched with agony. Inez and Nan held her, tearing their shoulder muscles as the larger woman thrashed, until it stopped.
Klea’s turn left the youngest woman frozen, staring at something only she could see, every piece of her locked so tightly they didn’t dare touch her for fear she might splinter. Her lips moved quickly in silent response until finally she’d torn herself away from the invisible threat transfixing her and slumped to the ground, dust puffing the air.
Nan cried, holding herself and refusing the touch of anyone else. Inez knew some of Nan’s scars still hurt her, those reminders of her previous life, a story she’d told once and never again. Inez resisted the urge to hold her, knowing Nan would only shudder and tear away, though it tore at her heart.
Inez watched the others, helping as she could, waiting for her own past to come to her. It would ache but she’d survived before. Yet nothing, nothing, nothing. Only the curious feel of the air she’d never forgotten, like the world was poised for something worse, an unnatural quiet she thought might deafen her if it went on much longer.
Except then the fear struck, horrors so invasive she couldn’t know if this was the first time she’d met them or if they’d nested in her from infancy, always lurking in the eaves of her mind until the moment was right.
She’d roiled in nightmares, hoping she’d finally rip apart so the voices would end and she could sink away at last, but relief never came. She imagined, or maybe she didn’t, the other three of the quartet intoning endlessly, reminding her of every mistake she’d ever made, ripping the world she thought she’d made for herself into shreds.
She screamed, and thought she heard other screams but they might only be more echoes of herself, no less a blight to the world she’d thought she could have a place in.
When she emerged from the terror she was alone, no friendly arms catching her as she fell. Grit filled her face but when she choked and coughed and rubbed it all away, they still weren’t there.
She circled the top of the hill, convinced just another change in perspective would bring them into view, battered but alive and worthy, as they’d all needed to prove themselves to be, so they could continue the sacred songs. First-sun burned overhead, poised to be sung into the coolness of second-moon ascendant, as the calendar dictated.
She thought she screamed, but no sound left her lungs.
The new quartet was damaged.
The news snaked through the town, as angry and fast as a disease yearning for a world of nothing but corpses and rot, as if the very particles of the air conspired to bring the news as far as it could travel. And yet, before the words reached her, Inez knew of the disaster.
They’d tried to ascend, the new four whose songs weren’t right, and take the top of the hill. And they failed, the air hissed, their songs and weaknesses displeasing the world enough that one of them was no more.
Inez left her small dwelling, the refuge she’d made for herself to hide from the world. She left faster than Raq could stop her, the other woman so surprised at Inez wanting to go outside she wasn’t sure how to respond. Raq followed her as Inez followed the sad refrain lacing the air, all the way to the centre of the town, where the light of the wrong heavenly alignment illuminated looks of sadness and suspicion that deepened at her approach. The world seemed too fluid, as if the far reaches of her vision couldn’t latch on to what was truly there.
The three who’d survived were clustered together yet broken, the lack of the last of their number almost loud enough to drown out the voices. Almost.
“I will go,” Inez said. “I will sing the sky back to holiness.”
Why should they believe you? Klea, her voice unaffected as if she didn’t care. Maybe she never had. You’re hoping you’ll die this time.
Please let us go. Jiene, turning Inez’s heart inside out. Why are you letting this happen?
Nan was silent but Inez felt her, waiting. She’d always been the most willing to wait, watch, calculate. She’d loved her for the depths of her silence and the rare moments she chose to grace the world with words.
She’d loved them all, as she’d thought they loved her.
“I will go,” she repeated. She met Raq’s face but couldn’t force her own into an expression that would satisfy her.
The remaining three turned to her, their faces caught in identical grief. They murmured, too soft for her to hear. She tried to watch them, the world tilting around her, until their sound laid strength over the sorrow. Then, as one, they joined her.
They walked towards the hill. The voices beat a tattoo underlying every step.
The hill looked as it had the last time, as if the world gave no thought for her loss. She gazed out and dared sing a note. She was second-sun, the second-highest pitched of the four, used to fitting herself between Nan and Jiene, as Klea supported them with the strength of second-moon’s resonance.
The note was hard on her throat, after so long without song, but she let it blossom into the air. She imagined it drifting away from her, flowing upwards, but nothing changed. The note died, her throat closed, her eyes burned.
I can’t even do this much. I can’t even fix the mess I made. There was no question of the thought being anything but her own.
She dropped to the ground, absently aware of pain in her knees. She was so tired.
The air changed and she prepared. Here it came, the nightmares, the fear that might kill her this time, if there was any mercy—
They stood in front of her, so real she longed to touch them but didn’t for fear they’d dissipate.
“I’m sorry.” Inez gasped as they stared at her. Haze drifted through the air, smudging their profiles, those faces that swelled her heart to see again. None of them spoke. “I’m sorry.”
The three exchanged looks as second-sun rose behind them, streaking them yellow and red and impossibly bright.
Klea, the ghost of Klea, all that was left of Klea after Inez killed her, reached forward. Her hand touched Inez’s cheek, the touch warm like she was still alive and fevered. Klea kissed her. Inez’s eyes salted themselves. Jiene laid one hand on her chest to meet her heartbeat and slung the other around her waist. Nan stood behind her, arms snaking around Inez’s shoulders as tears carved tracks on her face, a poor replacement for the scars she felt she deserved.
Warmth enveloped her.
Second-sun rose to its proper place for the first time in too long, with first-sun only a memory to the southwest. It rose to the accompaniment of music of hands and lungs, to prayers from the faithful and those who were not, to the press of exhausted embraces and frantic lovemaking.
The sky fit itself into place as Inez walked away, forgotten in the excitement. She walked to the beat of four heartbeats, a quartet of safety and belonging, home in the fastness of her bones.
Story copyright © 2017 by Devan Barlow
Artwork copyright © 2017 by Toeken
Devan Barlow’s fiction has appeared in Lackington’s and Abyss & Apex. When not writing she reads voraciously, drinks tea, and thinks about fairy tales and sea monsters. Follow her @Devan_Barlow.
Toeken is an artist/illustrator currently residing in Spain. He is a lover of wine, women, and song and is currently going quietly insane while assembling a new graphic novel.